About kerryarens

I am a Facilitator of Professional Learning for Kirkwood School District in Kirkwood, Missouri.

Readers Front & Center Book Club: Chapter 3

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Chapter 3: Teaching Smarter: Noticing and Naming

“Our conferences are little mirrors for our students.  Are we teaching them that they can or that they can’t?” (p.46).  With that, Barnhouse had piqued my interest.  How can noticing and naming help students know the ways they understand without just slapping an academic label on what they are already doing?  “Congratulations, Jimmy, you’re inferring!” doesn’t seem to be all that helpful.

SuccessInstead, Barnhouse suggests we name by describing what the student is doing and how they know what they know. In this way, we can make visible the hard work of reading, work that is often invisible to readers who are successful. We can build our teaching points around what students do well with texts.  Noticing and naming the process students use to solve problems in their reading focuses our energies in conferring toward student thinking, not student answers.

In addition to naming how students solve problems in texts, we can also notice and name how texts work during reading conferences.  Positioning the text as a puzzle to be solved, a puzzle that may have recognizable corner pieces or patterns, helps students think about being strategic problem-solvers within and across texts (p.51).


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In the final section in this chapter that tackles “What It Means to Teach,” Barnhouse asserts “if I identify a problem the student is having in the text, hold out a solution, and show the student a strategy for working toward that solution, I will have done all the work in that conference” (p.61).  How does our current practice reflect/refute the idea of sitting side by side with students to deeply notice their strengths as strategic readers and the patterns that puzzling texts hold?

Readers Front & Center Book Club: Chapter 2

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Chapter 2: Deciding Smarter: Not Teaching–Yet

Barnhouse contrasts teachers and CEOs in this chapter.  While she contends CEOs must make swift decisions in the board room, she cautions that similar behavior in the teaching of reading could be shaky practice at best.  The issue here lies in the fact that the true work of reading is mostly invisible, so when we make snap decisions about how to help readers, we often tend to the work that is most visible.  Instead, we should “allow ourselves to consider what a reader’s actions and behaviors might mean–not just what is visible but what the visible points to” as we try to “get a glimpse of how the mind and the book are intersecting” (p.29).

If our hopes are for students to read with vision, agency, and a flexible mindset, how do we align our instruction with those goals?  Do we believe texts have fixed meaning?  Do we look for students to regurgitate our meaning of text or to collaboratively construct their own (p.31)?

problem-solving2Barnhouse  nudges us to teaching with vision by noticing how students know instead of what they know.  Simple follow-up questions during our conferring, such as “How do you know that?” or “Where did you get that information” or “What did you read that gave you that idea?”   If we value process and effort over product and ability, noticing how students accomplish something rather than simply focusing on the accomplishment itself communicates those values (p. 32-33). If we want students to be problem-solvers as they read, we cannot situate ourselves as the problem solvers in a text.  What may seem like an innocuous “Are you sure?” when a student makes errors has the power to narrow our vision only to what students don’t get.  Instead we might describe the text as a puzzle to solve and ask students,  “How can we figure that out?”  With this slight shift, the student works to solve a puzzle, not the teacher.  Finally, Barnhouse points to the power of errors.  If we value students as problem-solvers, they are going to make mistakes.  Barnhouse aligns her thinking with Clay when she suggests we should be strategy-oriented not task-oriented when it comes to errors.  We should look for opportunities to celebrate their problem-solving process instead of correcting each little error.


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How do you help your students build their identities as Thinkers and Learners both consciously and subconsciously (p.40-41)?


Readers Front & Center Book Club: Chapter 1

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2245563352_292011c519Chapter 1: Noticing Smarter: Researching What We Don’t Know

In this section, Barnhouse reminds us that our role in teaching reading is to teach the reader not the reading, the thinker  and not the thoughts.   We must, she contends, shift our attitudes when we approach reading conferences from thinking of ourselves as the teachers who are supposed to know to the teachers who are supposed to discover (p.13).  Starting conferences side by side with readers with questions we truly want to hear the answers to, ones we don’t already know the answers to, might be a place to start refreshing our thinking on conferring.


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-To what extent do you agree with Barnhouse’s claims that the barriers to our truly listening to students exist in our mental models of conferring as teaching as correcting, teaching the text, and teaching as evaluation (pp. 22-23)?  How do we remove whatever barriers exist between us and listening deeply to our students’ thinking?






Barnhouse’s Readers Front & Center Book Club

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readers-front-and-center-miller“Every teacher wants and expects his or her students to be reading increasingly complex texts, yet sometimes the gap between our expectations and our students’ abilities seems wide and deep.  It’s tempting to look at that gap and step in to fill it for them, but then we’d be doing most of the ‘heavy lifting’–the understanding, analysis, and interpretation that our students should be learning for themselves.”  With that small blurb on the back cover of Barnhouse’s Readers Front & Center: Helping All Students Engage with Complex Texts,  she had me hooked.

How do we get our students to dive into texts, to do the work of complex meaning-making, and to love reading?  How do we nurture our love of teaching reading by listening closely to the thinking our students do as they read?

Join Our Book Club Conversation

If you’re interested in learning with us, pick up a copy of Barnhouse’s book.  We are tackling through Chapter 3 by December 3, and we will post some thinking questions to spark discussion for the first part of the book here.  (You can even subscribe to this blog by entering your school email in the box on the left side of the blog post and receive our discussion questions each week to your mailbox.)

Today’s questions come from the introduction in Barnhouse’s text, which she aptly names “Learning to Listen.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 1.36.45 PM

  1. On pages 5-8 Barnhouse laments how the authors of the CCSS have given short shrift to the reader and task component of text complexity in how the standards have been rolled out.  She shares the story of a boy reading an excerpt from Tom Sawyer who has no idea how to listen to the text.  She claims the act of reading has been yanked out of context for the reader, similar to the excerpt being yanked out of the story: “There is no why, as in why should this student read this particular text; there is no how, as in how should this student read this particular text; and there is no so what, as in what’s the payoff for this student’s efforts”(p. 8).  In your time with students, how do you connect them to the why, how, and so what of reading?

2.  Barnhouse contends, “We cannot say that students are an important factor in determining text complexity and then create curricula that ignore students.  We cannot say that students need to read independently and proficiently and then hand them texts they can’t read” (p.9).  How do specialists support classroom teachers in teaching the reader, not the text?

Use the comments section to share your thinking!

Is my child reading on grade-level?

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This deceptively simple question has been on the lips of many parents.  And, with report cards just around the corner, the complexity of answering that question continues to dabbs-foster-love-reading-Thinkstockweigh heavily on teachers. Teaching, like parenting, is not for the faint of heart.

So, with a nod to the hard work of both teachers and parents, below are some thoughts that might help us continue to make sense of how we communicate progress in reading.

This post might leave you in disequilibrium.  It might create more questions than answers.  It might reaffirm what you have felt as a teacher or parent trying to support a child in this new and challenging era of literacy.  Join the conversation by posting your thoughts and questions.

Sophisticated Texts and Skills

While as a parent, I care deeply about my children’s love or distaste for reading, on a report card, I expect to see if they are reading “on grade-level.”  Again, this sounds simple.  However, national and state standards are placing “equal emphasis on the sophistication of what students read and the skill with which they read” (“How to Read the Standards”, 2015).   So, our first challenge is to report clearly how students are progressing in both of these areas.

Complex Texts

Two questions serve as a foundation for our conversation with parents about readers tackling complex texts:

  • What is the current level of text your student reads with accuracy and fluency?
  • How does this compare with the grade-level expectation?

On our reading rubrics the criteria that serve to help us flesh out this conversation are “Range of Text,” “Phonics/Word Recognition,” and “Fluency and Comprehension.”  (K-1 also includes “Print Concepts” and Phonological Awareness.”)

-“Range of Text” communicates if a child in 1st through 5th grade reads and understands texts at the grade level expectation with appropriate accuracy and comprehension.  These grade-level texts would challenge students due to their quantitative characteristics (i.e., the length of words and sentences) and their qualitative characteristics (their meaning, purpose, and structure).  This reporting criteria also shares if a student’s skills transfer across a variety of texts (stories, poetry, informational texts, etc.).  Meeting expectations (a 3 on the report card) would indicate that the child is on target for grade level expectations for that quarter. Kindergarten teachers felt strongly that they would report the information about their students reading grade-level text under “Fluency and Comprehension.”

-“Phonics/Word Study” shares if students apply grade-level phonics, word analysis skills, and decoding strategies to problem solve words in isolation and in text.  Earning a 3 each quarter signals a student can apply these foundational grade-level skills taught that quarter to grade-level texts.

-“Fluency and Comprehension”  describes if students read with appropriate accuracy, rate, and expression as well as self-correction strategies for that grade-level.  Earning a 3 each quarter shows a student can apply these foundational grade-level fluency skills taught that quarter to grade-level texts in order to understand them.

 Focusing on the Reader

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Visuals adopted from Barnhouse’s Readers Front & Center as well as a quote from Peter Brunn’s workshop this summer on Collaborative Literacy Classrooms remind us the most important parts of reading should be the readers and their thinking.

The above reporting criteria give us a way to communicate to parents how their students fare with complex texts and the foundational skills they pull from to decode and make sense of the words on a page.  However, as Dorothy Barnhouse suggests in Readers Front & Center: Helping All Student Engage with Complex Texts, tending only to the qualitative and quantitative aspects of text that may make text challenging for some students ignores the most essential component of what makes reading complex for all readers: the thinking readers do as they read.

This summer Peter Brunn met with numerous English Language Arts teachers from Kirkwood and reminded us of the power of listening to student thinking instead of listening for the correct answer.  Barnhouse adds to this idea when she suggests teachers “can only begin to know what [a] student is thinking by shifting [their] attitude[s] from the teacher who is supposed to know to the teacher who is supposed to discover” and by getting “out of the way” so they can “listen, carefully” to student thinking “from a stance of not knowing” (13).  Teachers take on the role of researchers to learn about their students’ thinking because they do not yet know how each student reads texts until teachers listen to that student’s thinking as he reads by engaging him in conversation.

During this conference, Barnhouse adds teachers might notice and name what students already do as readers and then determine what next steps the students might need in advancing their skills.  As teachers lean in to listen to their students’ thinking, they learn how students make meaning of what the text says, how the author crafts the text, and how to integrate that new knowledge with what they already know or with what other texts say.

This thinking exists whether readers are tackling a challenging grade-level text, a story their best friend recommends, an infographic about the power of recycling at their school, a blog about fashion, or a sculpture at Laumeier Sculpture Park.  Texts are all around our readers, and paying attention to their thinking as they explore these texts is essential to our ability to support them in an era where the definition of literacy is ever-expanding. Focusing on the reader means our goal is to “help each student expand from where they are so they can do complex thinking in texts that are complex for them” (Barnhouse, 68).

Attaining that goal is not a linear path, so Barnhouse eschews the Common Core State Standards staircase of text complexity, claiming it focuses solely on the text, not the reader.  Instead, she attempts to capture the interrelationship of text-and-reader in her own visual of a staircase.

Adapted from Barnhouse's Readers Front & Center.

Adapted from Barnhouse’s Readers Front & Center (68).


Simply stated, this visual shows the intersection of a reader and a text.  “At the bottom of the staircase is a reader doing simple thinking in a simple text.  At the top of the staircase is a reader doing complex thinking in a complex text.  In between are readers doing simple thinking in complex texts and complex thinking in simple texts” (Barnhouse, 68).

In reporting student progress, we hope to show that intersection of reader and text as well.

Complex Thinking

If the reporting criteria for Foundational Skills and Range of Text are how we communicate to parents the complexity of texts their students are reading with the decoding and fluency skills to make sense of them, then the other reporting criteria are how we report the evidence we have for the complexity of a reader’s thinking.  

Three questions may serve to open a conversation with parents around the complexity of their student’s thinking as readers:

  • What are the grade-level skills your student should apply to texts of various levels of complexity & varied genres (types)?
  • How does your student’s skill mastery compare with the grade level expectation?
  • Which skills could you practice at home to help your student tackle more complex texts in more complex ways?

Our reading rubrics help us speak to students’ complexity of thinking by “distilling reading to a single set of  nine [essential] reading skills that readers can carry across texts and up grade levels” (Calkins, 24).
Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 2.51.49 PM-In making meaning of what the text says, students will grapple with  the first three of those essential skills, which are also three of our reporting criteria: “Details & Inferences, “Central Ideas & Themes,” and the “Development of Ideas, People, or Characters.”  Each grade level expectation outlines new layers of complexity in these thinking skills, so students move from doing simple readings to complex readings of texts.  Meeting expectations each quarter means students can practice the complex thinking skills taught that quarter about making meaning of what the text says at the level of sophistication appropriate for that grade level when reading in whole group, small group, and independently.


Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 2.53.17 PM-In making meaning of how the author crafts text, students will be encouraged to increase the complexity of their thinking in terms of “Word Choice,” “Text Structure,” and “Author’s Purpose,” three additional essential skills outlined in our reporting criteria.  Similar to the previous group of reporting criteria, these standards increase in sophistication with each grade level. Meeting expectations each quarter means students can practice the complex thinking skills taught that quarter about making meaning of how the author crafts the text at the level of sophistication appropriate for that grade level when reading in whole group, small group, and independently.





Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 3.00.41 PM

-The last three essential skills outlined in our reporting criteria examine students’ sophistication in integrating knowledge and ideas.  Specifically, we hope to communicate how students “Understand Text of Diverse Formats,” “Analyze & Critique Arguments,” and “Compare Multiple Texts” in increasingly complex ways over their K-5 experience.  Meeting expectations each quarter means students can practice the complex thinking skills taught that quarter about integrating knowledge and ideas at the level of sophistication appropriate for that grade level when reading in whole group, small group, and independently.





In order for students to do the rigorous work outlined in the complex skills and complex text sections above, “they’ll need explicit instruction in the skills and strategies of high-level comprehension.  They’ll need a repertoire of strategies that undergird these reading skills.  They’ll need the skills broken down into manageable steps, and they’ll need to practice these steps and get expert feedback along with way.  They’ll need lots of practice, on a variety of texts.  As they do this practice, teachers will need assessments [like our Fountas and Pinnell benchmark and running records] that will allow them to carefully calibrate their teaching, to move kids up levels of skill and text difficulty” (Calkins, 28).


How do you determine when to move kids up levels of skill and text difficulty?


How do we provide a holistic picture of our readers (the intersection of their skills and levels of text complexity) in order to help parents best support their reader’s growth at home?




















Reading Rubrics, Mark 6

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A few weeks ago, my family and I went to see the new Avengers: Age of Ultron movie.  While I like all of the characters, I’d have to say Iron Man/Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) is my absolute fave.  He caught my attention with his quick wit and his tinkering in the first Iron Man and Avenger movies, but he really had me in Iron Man 3 when he kept tweaking his Iron Men, never quite reaching perfection but staying hot in pursuit of it.  Our ELA curriculum committee, I think, channeled Tony Stark this year in their desire to create more perfect reading rubrics for all grade levels.  We may be only on Mark 6  or so of the Iron_Man_suit_gallery_1-42rubrics, but we have listened to your feedback, and we made changes to support you in capturing snapshots of your students’ learning in time. So, we hope you like these new rubrics.  They can’t shoot lasers or help you fly, but we are pretty proud of them, nonetheless.

What We Heard From You

1)  The language of the rubrics is not clear.  What do those words mean, and how can we make their meanings clear to us, to parents, and to our kids?  So, instead of keeping consistent language from the anchor standards for the reporting criteria in grades K-5, we now have the grade-level specific language of the standards.  This means more easily envisioning what “Reading to Understand Key Ideas and Details” looks like in your grade.


2)  The clustering of standards makes it difficult when it comes time for me to report.  How can we make this easier without creating too many more reporting standards?  Last year, some of the reporting standards reflected clusters of the reading standards from the CCSS (see the bold print on this page, which names the clusters of standards).  So, when you reported on “Reads to Understand Key Ideas and Details,” you were really reporting on the first three reading standards in the CCSS.

To break apart these clusters, your new rubrics have the standards no longer clustered in threes.  However, breaking each of these clusters into individual standards meant some grades would have up to 24 reporting standards JUST FOR READING!  Ugh.

So, this year, we are going to pair the literature and informational text standards into one reporting criteria.  Take a look at the following excerpt from our 5th grade reading rubric for standard 2:

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What you’ll notice is that both the standard for literature and for informational text are listed under “meeting.”  This trims down that number of reporting standards from that overwhelming 24 number mentioned earlier, but it comes with some drawbacks.  One snag will be that you will need to share with your parents through the use of report card comments what your focus will be for the quarter: literature, informational text, or both.  Another potential issue might be for the small number of students who have a discrepancy in their scores between literature and informational texts during a quarter when you are teaching both.  Using report card comments again will be helpful in communicating their current levels of mastery.  Perhaps you report on their literature score and in the comments, you note how their informational text level of mastery has not yet caught up to their level of mastery in literature.


3)  We need Infinite Campus reporting standards to be determined prior to the start of the school year, and we need them to stay the same for at least one year, maybe two or three.

The new rubrics will have the following reporting criteria (these titles were based on research from Navigating the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards):

Details& Inferences

Central Ideas & Themes

Development of  Ideas, People, or Characters

Word Choice

Text Structure

Author’s Purpose

Understanding Text of Diverse Formats

Analyzing and Critiquing Arguments

Comparing Multiple Texts

Range of Text

Foundational Skills: Print Concepts (K-1 only)

Foundational Skills: Phonological Awareness (K-1 only)

Foundational Skills: Phonics and Word Recognition

Foundational Skills: Fluency


 4)  Don’t we want all students to transfer their reading skills across the curriculum?  How else could we clarify what “Extending” looks like?

Yes, we do want all students to transfer.  So, we did some research on how else we might define “Extending.”

How We Tinkered with “Extending”

Richardson's Periodic Table of Play

Richardson’s Periodic Table of Play

Trying to define what “extending” looks like, sounds like, and feels like, we turned to some key resources: Laura Seargeant Richardson’s Periodic Table of Play, the New Bloom’s Taxonomy, Paul and Elder’s Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, and Simon Sinek’s idea of starting with the why.


Standards RL and RI 1-3  ask students to think deeply about what the text says.  To define what students who “extend” beyond the standards might do, we pulled language from the upper tiers of Bloom’s taxonomy, nudging students to evaluate the details in the text to find the best ones to support their thinking.  Richardson’s PTOP kept play at the center of our attention, reminding us that students extending their understanding play with texts, exploring patterns and synthesizing details to make new learning.  Paul and Elder’s intellectual standards of clarity, relevance, and precision provided the language we needed to describe students’ summaries that extend beyond a mere reiteration of facts or events.

From Paul and Elder's Critical Thinking : Concepts & Tools

From Paul and Elder’s Critical Thinking : Concepts & Tools

Standards RL and RI 4-6 direct readers’ attention to how authors say their message: the craft and structure of the text.  Students extending beyond the standards in this area can relate to Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: because we ask them to think like writers and readers, they can explain why authors choose the structures, words, and phrases they do.  They understand the significance of authors’ choices, articulating the impact these choices have on readers and demonstrating this standard of critical thinking from Paul and Elder.


The standards tending to integrating ideas and knowledge (RL 7 and 9 and RI 7-9) ask readers to make meaning of  authors’ messages in multiple texts or multiple formats of text.  Students who sharpen their skill sets beyond the standards in this area are those who make relevant, high quality inferences (see Paul & Elder’s standards and elements of critical thinking).  They also evaluate author’s choices for their effectiveness and impact on the reader (Bloom’s).


Finally, the Foundational Skills Standards (RF 1-4) undergird students’ reading with the basic elements of reading success: print concepts, phonological awareness, phonics, and fluency.  Students extending beyond the standard in this area show flexibility in their thinking (Richardson’s PTOP).  They have tolerance for change; they flex and adapt their thinking; they work through ambiguity.  They know the rules of print, for example, but they know what to do when an author breaks the rules.  They move fluidly between word-solving strategies to read challenging texts.


What Support Will Follow

As you think about getting ready for next year, consider joining us for some PD this summer. All ELA sessions will have embedded planning time in them to work with your colleagues to connect your students’ day to day experiences with the reporting standards.

Sign up in MLP for any of the following ELA experiences:

Close Reading & Curiosity

Rocking the Mini-Lesson

Reading &  the Brain

K thru 5 Science and ELA Supported Planning


Whether Tony Stark is building a better Iron Man or we are building better rubrics, Grant Wiggins reminds us,”We don’t need to be geniuses to change things for the better. We just need to want, solicit, and act on feedback when we initiate any change. That is the key to all modern improvements, from hardware to software to services. Change of any kind, to lead to progress and to last, involves a robust feedback system.”











Story Workshop: Purposeful Play in ELA

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periodic table of play

Richardson’s Periodic Table of Play

This week, I am learning with Andrea Jamison’s 1st grade class as they tinker, explore, and write in Story Workshop.  Join us as we learn together!

At Keysor, they have been focused on a year-long theme of Quest, which stems from their learning around Laura Seargeant Richardson’s Periodic Table of Play, and Andrea, like many of us, has been trying to reconcile the ideas of purposeful play and the reading/writing workshop.  She decided to revisit the Story Workshop model, which has 5 main components, described below.


Andrea prepared the classroom for her students by selecting a mixture of materials that were familiar, dramatic, textured, and open-ended.  The environment was designed to be open, flexible, and responsive.  Students could not wait to begin experimenting with the materials.  A few boys built a house with a ramp to the attic; girls bent over pinecones and toilet paper rolls to create the perfect playground are for a child to hide from a bully; a boy in the corner mixed textures and Kappas to create a structure that had a role yet to be determined in his story.



Next, Andrea artfully blended the idea of posing a question to provoke student thinking around stories with her mini-lesson topic.  She had been working with her students on understanding that stories have beginnings, middles, and ends, and now she was ready to dig in a little more deeply with characters and their problems.  She used the mentor text of Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes and asked her students to consider what Chrysanthemum’s problem was in the story and how it looked at the beginning, middle, and end of the story.  She sent students off to begin thinking of their stories, the problems their characters might have, and how they might be resolved.


Story Invitation and Negotiation

Since Andrea’s students were at the beginning of this unit of study, she next spent time inviting them to notice the differentIMG_0663 materials in the story and to decide which materials might help them find their stories.  As students thought about their thinking and which materials might best help them, they negotiated with Andrea.  They were asked to slow down, to reflect, and to consider new possibilities.  Andrea listened to her students and gave them her undivided attention in finding the materials to unearth their stories.


Story Creation

To the lay observer, it may have appeared students in Andrea’s classroom were simply handling various materials.  However, listening to their conversations revealed a much richer experience.  Students explored the classroom, searching for their stories, awakening their memories, and connecting to other stories.  As the children played with the materials, they talked with one another about their characters, their settings, and how their characters were going to solve their problems.

IMG_0648During this time, Andrea busily conferred with students, careful to provide her focused attention and specific questioning skills to help them find their stories, take risks in experimenting with them, and refine them as time goes on.  Her references to beginnings, middles, and ends of stories as well as the characters’ problems kept the learning connected to the mini-lesson for the day.  That connection, combined with the flexibility of one-on-one conferring, met students where they were in their learning and offered opportunities to differentiate for students on the autism spectrum, students with advanced readiness, and students with different learning styles.


Story Congress

Andrea’s students ended their workshop with a Story Congress.  During this time, students shared their stories, and both the teacher and their peers provided feedback.  The Congress plan comes from observations and conferences during story creation.  Today’s authors brought to light the power of collaboration: authors co-writing chapter books, complete with characters who have problems and beginnings and middles to their stories, shared their work.  Their feedback was to consider where their story might end.  Another student offered his use of Notability for his writer’s notebook.  He wanted to capture the materials he had engaged with as well as his writing, so he took pictures of the structure he created and added his own text in Notability.

Richardson believes that in a world filled with standardized tests, “it’s critical to import the notion that play helps kids find their inner creativity and become curious and analytical beings.”

How do you embed creativity and play in your classroom?

Stay tuned for more learning with Story Workshop!



Coaching to Support Assessment Literacy

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As Kirkwood School District Instructional Coaches and facilitators, we often play many roles: mentor, data coach, lead learner, and curriculum specialist, just to name a few. We support the district mission “to develop students who will add value to our dynamic world using knowledge, character, and problem solving skills” and believe we are a part of making the district vision a reality where “we will succeed when all our students and graduates:

  • take  an active role in improving our community
  • seek to understand and communicate multiple perspectives or points of view
  • act in ways that promote physical, mental, and emotional health
  • communicate effectively about a wide range of topics with a diverse audience
  • participate in designing and making decisions about their learning
  • have the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed beyond graduation”



In our work in the district with Understanding by Design for the past 3 years, many of us have lent our expertise in helping teachers think through their big ideas, enduring understandings, essential questions, learning goals, and the learning design to help students not only attain the skills and content knowledge they need to succeed in one course, but to transfer that understanding across grade levels and disciplines.

Coaching & the Strategic Plan

In continuing to support the mission and the vision, the focus to our work becomes more clear in Kirkwood School District’s new Strategic Plan. The first Focus Area in the Strategic Plan is High Quality Instruction Leading to Student Achievement.  Within this focus area, there are 3 main goals:

  1. We will implement high quality, research-based instructional practices in every learning environment.
  2. All students will be engaged in meaningful learning experiences that foster depth of knowledge and cross grade levels, disciplines, school buildings, and extend communities.
  3. Students will be prepared and empowered to transfer their knowledge and skills through collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creative problem solving as citizens of the global community.

As Instructional Coaches, we have an opportunity to support the thinking and learning around these goals and to help teachers, students, and administrators consider ways to assess our success in attaining those goals.  More specifically, KSD’s Strategic Plan calls for “data measures for all goals leading to high quality instruction,” and lists “common assessments, rubrics and grades, and use of feedback by students and teachers” as ways we can measure our success.

We are part of the action plan, where we support/create “a system for high quality professional development that provides many learning opportunities and combines a variety of learning strategies and resources so teachers and administrators develop the knowledge, skills, practices, and dispositions they need to implement high quality, research-based instructional practices in every learning environment, engage students in meaningful ways, and prepare and empower students to transfer their knowledge, skills, and understanding.”

Coaching & Needs Assessment

While the strategic plan lists common assessments as one measure of our goals leading to high quality instruction, we coaches might find teachers and administrators are interested in beginning with a broader vision of assessment before designing specific assessments.  One tool that may help our schools think through their own assessment literacy is adapted from UNC Greensboro’s SERVE Center, and asks educators to gauge their expertise as an assessment literate teacher.  Teachers rank their proficiency in

  • defining clear learning goals
  • making use of a variety of assessment methods to gather evidence
  • analyzing achievement data
  • making good inferences from the data gathered
  • providing appropriate feedback to students
  • making appropriate instructional modifications
  • involving students in self-assessment
  • engineering a classroom environment that boosts student motivation to learn

Once coaches have an idea of the needs represented by their staff from this pre-assessment, they can begin to compile resources, provide professional learning opportunities, and support teachers through one-on-one or small group coaching conversations.  The beginning of those supports has been gathered here, and some additional supports are available on the district facilitators page.

Coaching & Defining Clear Learning Goals

Teachers who need support in defining clear learning goals might not yet be able to articulate what they want students to know and be able to do, how their goals align with new national standards, or how to make plain the daily learning targets for students while holding larger transfer goals in mind as well.  Creating high quality assessments without this clarity is next to impossible, so beginning with building their capacity to craft learning goals for different purposes is a powerful first step.

You might begin with supporting teachers as they think through their transfer goals for students.  These overarching goals will help enduringunderstandingto frame the other learning they want students to engage in throughout their course as well.  Teachers can connect with coaches to better understand how transfer goals inform their meaning making goals as well as the acquisition goals they have for their students.

Coaching & Making Use of a Variety of Assessment Methods to Gather Evidence

Once teachers have a richer understanding of what they want their students to know and be able to do, they need to determine the acceptable evidence of that understanding.  In our district, many schools are working toward common assessments as one of those pieces of evidence, yet formative assessment and teacher observation are also key in understanding the whole child.

For teachers new to Kirkwood, new to teaching, or new to the idea of multiple measures, coaches might engage in an article study on “The Many Meanings of Multiple Measures” by Susan Brookhart.  Teachers wanting a thinking partner about how assessment informs instruction might converse with a coach about Carol Ann Tomlinson’s “Learning to Love Assessment.”  Once the theoretical reasoning is solid, teachers might need support in the day to day use of assessment and how it should impact their instructional response.  Attending conferences, like Differentiation and the Brain with Tomlinson and Sousa will provide opportunities to test their classroom application theories with people from within and outside the district.  Teachers will walk away from these conferences with tools and notes in hand, ready to adapt their learning to meet the needs of their students.

Untitled1As teachers begin to craft their common assessments, assessment blueprint tools will help them insure their assessment is aligned to their big ideas and learning goals and that it provides more than one opportunity for students to demonstrate their level of mastery.  For teachers who inherited common assessments or who would like to look at their own assessments with a more critical lens, Wiggins and McTighe’s Two-Question Validity Assessment might prove useful.


Coaching & Analyzing Achievement Data & Making Inferences

With so many different forms of data to analyze, teachers may identify data analysis as one of their coaching needs.  Whether the teacher is working alone or in a Professional Learning Community, understanding the questions to ask when looking at data are perhaps as important as the data itself.  Luckily, the National School Reform Faculty has compiled a variety of protocols for data analysis that are ready-to-use but can also be easily adapted to fit the timeframe of your data meetings.

One protocol that is particularly useful when working with teachers new to data analysis is “Data Driven Dialogue.”  In this protocol, Brains-Twocoaches help teachers surface their perspectives, beliefs, and predictions about the data before moving on to analyzing the data for patterns and inferring  or planning new actions as a result of the data.  The ATLAS protocol serves coaches well when there is a limited amount of time for data analysis and a goal is building capacity of other teacher leaders to lead data meetings.  The steps, timeline, and questions are clearly delineated for teachers and coaches new to leading data team meetings.

When teachers examine two data sets, specifically observational data, the Data Mining Protocol may be used.  In looking at student work across classrooms and grade levels, the Interrogating the Slice Protocol keeps teachers focused on student work and the patterns and insights that emerge from the data, suggestive of an instructional response.

Finally, your teachers may ask for support in using the Ferguson-Florissant data site and making sense of the data available to them within their classrooms, their courses, their grade levels, and their schools.  A step-by-step guide that I used with freshman and sophomore English teachers includes screen shots and instructions for accessing the data on this site, which reports might be most fruitful for individual and course-level reflections, as well as a protocol for thinking through data, and resources to consider for planning the instructional response to the data.

Coaching & Providing Appropriate Feedback to Students

After the assessments have been given, teachers will also need to provide feedback to their students, and both veteran and new teachers alike might find tools in these articles to sharpen the impact their feedback has on student achievement.  These articles would be interesting for coaches to use as they lead a close reading activity prior to digging into common grading of assessments or even individual teachers completing their own grading.

Time for FeedbackIn Goodwin and Miller’s article, they point out that much research suggests the feedback we often give as teachers (a score or percentage) actually has negative effects on learning.  Instead, we should focus our efforts on written feedback that is linked to objectives, timely (sometimes immediate, sometimes delayed, depending on the kind of learning desired), and specific.  How many times did I write the comment vague on a student’s paper only to discover weeks later that he had no idea what that word meant and no idea how to correct the issue, even when he had learned the definition?

Fisher and Frey echo these themes in “Feed Up, Back, Forward,” where they describe feedback as feeding up (clarifying the learning goal), feeding back (providing information to students on where they are in relation to the goal and what steps they need to take next), and feeding forward (data informing their next instructional choices to improve learning.)

Coaching & Making Appropriate Instructional Modifications

As teachers plot their next steps in teaching, coaches can play a pivotal role in helping them focus their efforts on the strategies proven to be most effective.  Whether it is selecting strategies from Hattie’s list of greatest impacts on student achievement to adopt and adapt or focusing on Marzano’s High Yield Instructional Strategies, teachers benefit from coaches sharing the suggested strategies and the conversation that precedes and follows examining the list.

Teachers contemplating their instructional choices might engage a coach in further exploringScreen Shot 2014-04-22 at 9.25.23 PM the models of Response to Intervention (RTI) or Differentiated Instruction to improve students engagement and achievement.  Still others might notice a lag in their students from families with lower socioeconomic status, and a coach could provide Jensen’s text on poverty’s effect on the brain or other articles, like Payne’s, on the instructional response to poverty as first steps toward awareness and designing learning to help bridge the existing gaps for those students.

Coaching & Involving Students in Self-assessment

While teachers make instructional choices based on the data they receive from their assessments, students should also be gauging their success in hitting the learning targets and tracking those patterns of achievement over time.  This practice can seem overwhelming to teachers who are just beginning to use assessment results for their own planning, and a coach can guide teachers in choosing the bite-sized chunk they are willing to engage their students in for self-assessment.  Pickering and Marzano have exemplars readily available for adaptation.

Coaching & Engineering a Classroom Environment that Boosts Student Motivation to Learn

While all of the learning listed above should lead to greater engagement on the part of students, sometimes teachers will engage a coach with a class whose sluggish data on student achievement mirrors the level of student engagement.  Much of the work of the coach is in listening, observing, and gathering data in these instances, but occasionally, a teacher might seek out a new strategy or two to try as well.

Screen shot 2014-04-22 at 1.36.08 PMDr. Spencer Kagan’s collaborative structures offer ways to boost student engagement through their focus on four essential qualities.  Some of the structures listed above might be a the just-right step teachers are ready to take in rethinking student engagement.

Coaching & Assessment Literacy

Coaches provide the job-embedded, on-site, just-in-time professional learning research suggests has the greatest impact on supporting teacher growth.    Our work with teachers begins with the end in mind: “to develop students who will add value to our dynamic world using knowledge, character, and problem solving skills.”

Look Who’s Talking: the Power of Collaboration

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Looking around my classroom, I saw the students who knew how to play the game: they asked questions, they answered questions, they made connections.  Hidden in pockets were other students, the ones I didn’t hear from frequently, the ones I wasn’t quite sure about what they knew at the end of each day.  Their hands didn’t fly up when I posed a question, and they didn’t bubble over with enthusiasm when they made a connection to their learning outside our classroom.  I needed to hear from these students, too, and I wasn’t sure how to shift my instruction to make that happen.

Striving for Effective Collaboration

Collaborative learning sounded like one way I could hear more voices.  I agreed with Heflebower, Marzano and Pickering, who suggest “If students are not engaged, there is little, if any, chance that they will learn what is being addressed in class….  Student engagement happens as a result of a teacher’s careful planning and execution of specific strategies” (The Highly Engaged Classroom, 2011).holland-essentialskills-groupdev

I was ready to embed more of collaborative learning in my classroom to improve student engagement. With the best of intentions, put students into groups, gave them some meaningful work to tackle, and then had them present their thinking.  Easy.

Except–only some students in the group were doing the work of learning.  I couldn’t tell who was able to do what or who knew what. It was messy.  I realized students had little understanding of what effective collaboration looks like, as in Tuckman’s stages of group development.

Falling Short

So, I kept trying.  I numbered students off; I gave them individual reflections to complete during and after group work; I assigned roles.  Something was still missing.  Hattie’s meta-analysis of the research on collaborative structures suggested a .59 effect size (wow!), and yet, I wasn’t seeing that kind of impact on my own students’ learning.

engagement-1qn4axbWhen I honestly considered Schlechty’s Levels of Engagement, however, I had to admit too many students hovered around ritual or strategic compliance.

The Research I Wish I Knew

Fast forward to two years ago, when a colleague of mine asked if I had heard about Kagan structures.  Dr. Kagan’s research on collaborative structures identified my biggest goals for students in their work together.

Kagan’s work focuses on four principles of effective collaboration:

  • positive interdependence
  • individual accountability
  • equal participation
  • simultaneous interaction

 Kagan Structures

Kagan’s collaborative structures are easily adapted to your classroom.  Teachers who attended yesterday’s optional faculty meeting are already adjusting the strategies below to meet the needs of their students.  One math teacher used Rally Coach today to help students work through perimeter and area problems.  An art teacher adapted the structure and asked students to play the roles of Design Coaches, helping their partners think through the use of negative space in their works.

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Your turn

How would you adjust or use one of the strategies above to enhance student collaboration in your classroom?  What other collaborative strategies have you used to improve student engagement and learning?

Snapshots of Literacy Integration

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Screen shot 2014-01-28 at 2.50.30 PMLiteracy in the Math Classroom: Vocabulary

Looking for a way to spice up a review day?  Students in Geometry reviewed for a quiz by playing a version of Taboo.  First round, they pull a slip of paper with a vocabulary term on it and then they must describe to their teammates the concept without using the term itself.  Students describe theorems, angles, scale factor, and more in their race against the clock and in their competition against another team.  Round 2 presented students with the challenge of creating drawings of their vocabulary words, and students busily sketched alternate interior angles, corresponding angles, and other related terms to clarify their thinking, making plain any misconceptions to their teacher.  Learning vocabulary can be a fun process!

Literacy in the Math Classroom: Speaking and Listeningpartnerships

Tired of the sound of the same three voices in your classroom?  In a Geometry classroom near you, students partnered up based on the shape of their assigned polygon and then discussed which statements posted around the room were true or false for their image. Choosing to group students by partners filled the classroom with different voices and required all students to make meaning of key terms, like similar, congruent, and isosceles.  Getting more students talking gets more students learning.

Literacy in the Science Classroom: Reading

neuroplasticityWhether students are reading a text or a word problem, some don’t know the questions good readers ask themselves during the process.  A Chemistry teacher recently modeled her own think-alouds as she tackled a word problem with her students.  By sharing her thinking and delineating the questions she asked herself throughout the process, the teacher was able to help students begin to own the process of breaking down a complex text.

What do literacy strategies look like in your classrooms and content areas?